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Won’t Back Down

by on September 27, 2012
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“Won’t Back Down” is predictable but powerful, an inspirational drama based on a true story that, if it actually happened the way it’s depicted in the movie, means that life is now unfolding in conventional three-act story arcs just like they teach in screenwriting programs.

This movie about two mothers, one of them a teacher, attempting to take over a failing school comes from the same studio that last year released the documentary “Waiting for Superman.” The film, directed by Daniel Barnz from a script he co-wrote with Brin Hill, serves as a narrative feature counterpart to the same dilemma, about parents in rotten school districts looking for a way out for their kids. It’s based on events that happened in California but is set in the inner-city school system of Pittsburgh.

Half of the heroine duo, Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal), is a walking hot mess of a person, a working-class woman who toils at two jobs but can’t afford to send her dyslexic daughter Malia (Emily Alyn Lind) to private school. Jamie is one of those single moms barely holding it together, but she has spunk, determination and the ability to charm others.

It’s a flashy part, and Gyllenhall milks it for every ounce.

More challenging is the subtler role of Nona Alberts (Viola Davis), a teacher who was once impassioned but is now barely keeping her class above water. Such is the abject morale at Adams Elementary that the teachers are ordered to falsify the attendance records to hide how many students skip class, for fear of losing their funding. It’s no surprise that Adams has been labeled a “failing” school for 19 years in a row.

Davis has to show us a woman who’s become part and parcel of a broken system, but finally has the guts to stand up and fight back. Of course, she’s inspired by the poor educational progress of her own son. Davis displays layers of steely strength, fear and conviction a lesser performer might not.

The movie is careful not to portray teachers as the bad guys, though teacher unions fare less well. Holly Hunter plays a sympathetic local union president who’s appalled by the bare-knuckle tactics employed by those around her — one of whom openly states that they should start fighting for school children over teachers when the kids begin paying union dues.

“When did Norma Rae get to be the bad guy?” he laments, unironically.

It’s an interesting point in our history, after unions in the early 20th century fought bravely to secure basic protections and rights that we take for granted today. Still, like many public institutions some groups got self-indulgent and greedy and turned into the entrenched system standing in the way of progress.

In “Won’t Back Down,” this translates as Malia’s absolutely horrific teacher, who texts on her phone while the kids are bullying Malia, blithely protected by tenure.

Although it strives for some semblance of fairness, this sum total of this film’s thrust is firmly on the side of those pushing for change. But I give it points for at least trying to see things from the level of the classroom, where overtaxed teachers strive to do some good and not constantly worry about losing their jobs.

Since this story is driven by strong female characters, Oscar Isaac has the thankless duty of playing the role of the love interest who gets swept up in his partner’s cause. He’s a young guy straight out of Teach for America who strums a ukulele in class and is beloved by absolutely everyone. He exists more as an ideal than a real character.

“Won’t Back Down” is worth it for the powerhouse performances of Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal, and the rah-rah story with an undeniable emotional hook. I have to deduct a grade, though, for its embrace of reformist impulses through rigidly conformist storytelling methods.

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